every conversation with my father is like every other conversation the two of us have had for the past fourteen years. for as long as i can remember, all the family plans we make exclude him. it’s much easier for everyone that way. when he is there physically, which doesn’t happen often, me and my mother drink our jasmine tea, my brother reads his manga comics online in the adjacent room, while he, my father, watches the news on tv and reads more news on the paper, listens to yet more news on the radio, and makes long distance telephone calls (to pakistan, spain, and germany in one sitting). he does all of this seamlessly without missing a single word, glance, or gesture that passes between me and my mother. we feel slightly cheated by his definition of family time, but he seems to manage well.
a couple of weeks ago, i had to go to windsor to check out accommodations for school. i have an expired g1 license, but even if i had a valid one, i’d be afraid to touch my father’s monster of a crown vic. when my parents go grocery shopping on the weekends, the other drivers on the road slow down when they see my father’s car, mistaking it for an undercover police vehicle. there’s a new story about the old crown vic nearly every week. in normal circumstances, i’d ask my mother to come with me. on this particular day, however, my mother was exhausted and my brother was feeling too cool to accompany me, so i had no choice but to sit in the car as my dad drove from toronto to windsor – 382 km, according to google maps – and back. he was happy to come with me so he could get his assurance that the place i was to live in for the next (possibly) three years was worth it.
due to my chronic back pain that would most likely be worsened by my father’s stubbornness on making it a non-stop trip, i was worried about the drive. my mother was more worried that we wouldn’t be able to get past the boundaries of the city without arguing.
it’s funny, this hegelian nature of our relationship where the structure of each conversation down to the aporias and points of offense cluster themselves such that i can analyze a particular conversation as a replication of the totality of our relationship.
to each, we are les étrangers – both strangers and others or outsiders. my father left pakistan to work in canada when i was six months old. he didn’t return for nearly seven years. during the time my parents lived separately, they occasionally spoke on the phone, but mainly used letters to communicate “important matters.” until he returned, i had only seen my father’s photos from the time he lived in germany, france, and italy, followed by some photos of my parents’ wedding where my father looked like ataullah, a pakistani folk singer. the father i knew was only a man with cool, thick, super-straight hair and spiffy clothes, always sporting playful smiles. outside the pictures, my mother was my mother, my father, my superhero.
mere abu imran khan neiN!
my father is imran khan! remarked my cousin, sidra, one day after the pakistan cricket team won an important match.
meri ammi imran khan neiN!
my mother is imran khan! i responded. that shut her up.
when i was five or six, my mother decided that i was ready to speak to my father. i got ready to go to my aunt’s house because her home was the only place in the neighbourhood that had a phone. in anticipation of my meeting with my father, i had dressed up believing that he would physically be there. upon arriving at my aunt’s house, i couldn’t hide my disappointment. i tried speaking to my father, but i couldn’t carry on. less than an hour later, i returned home, crying.
abu istri vich phassay neiN!
father is stuck inside an iron!
i can’t remember whether it was persuasion by others (and belief) or ridicule that allowed me to get over the trauma. anyhow, soon after i turned seven, my father told us that he would be coming to see us soon. finally. my mother reminded me of what he now looked like by handing to me his most recent pictures. alas, gone were his boyish looks from the 70s and the 80s ataullah look. canada had been awfully kind to his belly, but it hadn’t been kind enough to his face. i couldn’t ignore the pudge that enveloped him like a foreign skin. i concede, i was quite disappointed to see that my father no longer looked cool. my mother must have seen the look on my face, so she quickly took the photos away from me and said, you’ll be the first to recognize your father when you see him at the lahore airport next month. he, of course, knew what i looked like. over the years, my mother had made it a tradition to dress me up in pouffy girly dresses and send me to chachu hafeez’s studio every few month or so for portraits.
in a moment of useless cleverness, my father mentioned to my mother that he would arrive on what would be the 29th canada time but 30th pakistan time. my mother let slip the two dates and the confusion began. two groups formed as a result – the 29ths and the 30ths – each unwilling to concede to the other. no amount of clarification by my mother or even my father would settle the matter. both groups joked about my mother going to the airport on the wrong day.
the night before my father’s (real) arrival, i took a shower before going to sleep because there wouldn’t be enough time the next day. i took a lump of hardened coconut oil and melted it between my palms before applying it to my damp hair. when i stepped out in front of the adults, they wouldn’t stop laughing and called me a paindu. a village git. i showered again.
we’re on our way in a tiny gray toyota my father drives faster than most vehicles around us, including the fancy cars and the jumbo trucks with massive wheels. we spend much of our time in the left lane making sure to overtake every car that has passed us by. it begins raining hard 15 minutes into the drives and the wiper on the driver’s side is not doing what it should. all my father sees is a wet blur. i must be his eyes until the rain stops or we drive through the system. we even drive by what looks like a funnel cloud past london and are finally in the clear – specks of cloud, grass, trees, and farms. our path is dotted with exits to small towns including leamington, the tomato capital of ontario, and countless tiny lakes.
we talk about everything from our summer trip to my brother’s eternal boredom with school. we have our first argument before we’re gone past 5 km from home, but if we make it through, i know the rest of the drive will go well.
as we’re driving back, my father says, we’re lucky there’s not much traffic today. there will be lots more as people return from their cottages tomorrow.
right (but “acha ‘rhymes with “ajj” which means “today”).
father: naiN. kal.
father: naiN, naiN. kal.
about an hour left until we get to toronto, the biggest topic of conversation is what places we will see in august. my father, afterall, has lived in germany, france, and italy when he was younger. but his stay in all these places was hardly ideal. even as he lived a few buildings away from notre dame, he never once stepped inside the cathedral. there hadn’t been time. long work hours and the general immigrant condition are reasons for not having seen any place that lies outside of the bus route to work. stories about germany are just as depressing. there’s one story, though, that he he thinks is worth telling.
when me and a few other guys were new to germany, the guys who had been there longer than us warned us never to drink cream sold in tiny containers at coffee shops. they told us it’s monkey milk.
the germans eat some really weird things; we just had to be careful, you know? the origin of the milk became a story we passed on to the guys who came after us.
i told your mother the story a while back. ‘are you crazy?’ she said. ‘monkeys would beat you up and scratch your eyes out before allowing you to milk them.’
my father drives into the gas station a few blocks from our condo and fills the tank while i replay the monkey milk story in my mind. he returns a few minutes later and looks at me. we both grin and burst out laughing.